Category Archives: Asia

Episode 159: Sky Animals



To celebrate my new book, Skyway, this week let’s learn about sky animals! They’re fictitious, but could they really exist? And what animals are really found in the high atmosphere?

You can order a copy of Skyway today on Kindle or other ebook formats! It’s a collection of short stories published by Mannison Press, with the same characters and setting from my novel Skytown (also available)!

Further reading:

“The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle (and you can even listen to a nice audio version at this link too!)

Charles Fort’s books are online (and in the public domain) if not in an especially readable format

Further Listening:

unlocked Patreon episode The Birds That Never Land

Rüppell’s vulture:

The bar-headed goose:

The common crane:

Bombus impetuosus, an Alpine bumblebee that lives on Mount Everest:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’ve got something a little different. Usually I save the weirder topics for Patreon bonus episodes, and in fact I had originally planned this as a Patreon episode. But I have a new book coming out called Skyway, so in honor of my new book, let’s learn about some sky animals!

Skyway is a collection of short stories about the same characters in my other book Skytown, so if you’ve read Skytown and liked it, you can buy Skyway as of tomorrow, if you’re listening on the day this episode goes live. I’ll put links to both books in the show notes so you can buy a copy if you like. The books have some adult language but are appropriate for teens although they’re not actually young adult books.

Anyway, the reason I say this episode is a little different is because first we’re going to learn about some interesting sky animals that are literary rather than real. Then we’ll learn about some animals that are real, but also interesting—specifically, animals that fly the highest.

Back before airplanes and other flying machines were invented, people literally weren’t sure what was up high in the sky. They thought the sky continued at least to the moon and maybe beyond, with perfectly breathable air and possibly with strange unknown animals floating around up there, too far away to see from the ground.

People weren’t even sure if the sky was safe for land animals. When hot-air balloons big enough to carry weight were invented in the late 18th century, inventors tried an important experiment before letting anyone get in one. In 1783 in France, a sheep, a duck, and a rooster were sent aloft in a balloon to see what effects the trip would have on them. The team behind the flight assumed that the duck would be fine, since ducks can fly quite high, so it was included as a sort of control. They weren’t sure about the rooster, since chickens aren’t very good flyers and never fly very high, and they were most nervous about the sheep, since it was most like a person. The balloon traveled about two miles in ten minutes, or 3 km, and landed safely. All three animals were fine.

After that, people started riding in balloons and it became a huge fad, especially in France. By 1852 balloons were better designed to hold more weight and be easier to control, and that year a woman dressed as the goddess Europa and a bull dressed as Zeus ascended in a balloon over London. But the bull was obviously so frightened by the balloon ride that the people watching the spectacle complained to the police, who charged the man who arranged the balloon ride with animal cruelty. The bull was okay, though, and no one made him get in a balloon again.

After airplanes were invented and became reliable, if not especially safe, the world went nuts about flying all over again. In 1922 Arthur Conan Doyle published a story called “The Horror of the Heights,” about a pilot who flew high into the sky and came across sky animals. You can tell from the story’s title that things did not go well for the main character.

The story is written as though it’s an excerpt from a journal kept by the main character, named Joyce-Armstrong. Early on, Joyce-Armstrong is talking about height records achieved by pilots and that no one has had any trouble that high in the sky. He says,

“The thirty-thousand-foot level has been reached time after time with no discomfort beyond cold and asthma. What does this prove? A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.”

After that are some really lovely descriptions of the pilot’s ascent into the sky, trying for both a height record and to see the so-called jungle of the upper air. In the story, he climbs to over 41,000 feet in an open cockpit monoplane without any special equipment. He’s wearing, like, a nice warm hat and wool socks. In actuality, at 40,000 feet, or 12,000 meters, the temperature can be as low as -70 degrees F, or -57 Celsius.

Anyway, Joyce-Armstrong writes in his journal, “Suddenly I was aware of something new. The air in front of me had lost its crystal clearness. It was full of long, ragged wisps of something which I can only compare to very fine cigarette smoke. It hung about in wreaths and coils, turning and twisting slowly in the sunlight. As the monoplane shot through it, I was aware of a faint taste of oil upon my lips, and there was a greasy scum upon the woodwork of the machine. Some infinitely fine organic matter appeared to be suspended in the atmosphere. There was no life there. It was inchoate and diffuse, extending for many square acres and then fringing off into the void. No, it was not life. But might it not be the remains of life? …The thought was in my mind when my eyes looked upwards and I saw the most wonderful vision that ever man has seen. …Conceive a jelly-fish such as sails in our summer seas, bell-shaped and of enormous size—far larger, I should judge, than the dome of St. Paul’s. It was of a light pink colour veined with a delicate green, but the whole huge fabric so tenuous that it was but a fairy outline against the dark blue sky. It pulsated with a delicate and regular rhythm. From it there depended two long, drooping, green tentacles, which swayed slowly backwards and forwards. This gorgeous vision passed gently with noiseless dignity over my head, as light and fragile as a soap-bubble…”

After that, Joyce-Armstrong sees more of the sky jellyfish and some long smoke-like creatures that he calls the serpents of the outer air. And then he’s attacked by a huge purplish creature sort of like a sky octopus with sticky tentacles. He escapes and flies home, writes his journal entry, and says he’s going back to capture one of the smaller sky jellyfish and bring it back to show everyone. And after that, the journal ends except for a terrible addendum scrawled in pencil on the last page. It’s a fun story that you can read for free online, since it’s in the public domain. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Arthur Conan Doyle is the same author who invented Sherlock Holmes, if the name sounds familiar. But he wasn’t the first one to imagine strange high-altitude sky animals. He was influenced by the writings of a man named Charles Fort. Fort liked to collect the accounts of weird happenings reported in newspaper articles and magazines, and he published his first book in 1919. If you’re a Patreon subscriber you may remember Fort from a bonus episode last October where I talked about a few of his animal-related cases. I’d unlock the episode for anyone to listen to except that I just re-listened to it myself, and at the end I talk about my recent eye surgery in really way too much detail. So I won’t unlock it, but I will say that Fort had a weird writing style that can be hard to follow. He likes to present outlandish theories as though he’s deadly serious, then claim that he’s only joking, then say, “Well, maybe I’m not joking.” His main goal is to make readers think about things that would never have occurred to them.

Fort was especially interested in falls of fish and frogs and other things, which we talked about in episode 140 last October. In his first book he suggested there are places in the sky where items collect, and that occasionally things fall out of those places. He called this the Super-Sargasso Sea, after the Sargasso Sea that’s supposed to be a becalmed area of the ocean where sailing ships get caught because there’s no wind or currents. The Sargasso Sea is a real place in the North Atlantic Ocean that has clear blue water and which is full of a type of seaweed called Sargassum. It’s also full of plastic, unfortunately, since that’s where the North Atlantic garbage patch is.

But Fort described his Super-Sargasso Sea as something between another dimension and an alien world that just brushes up against the earth’s atmosphere. He pointed out that this theory made as much sense as any other explanation for falling frogs and other things, which of course is why he suggested it. He didn’t actually believe it.

This is how Fort describes the super-Sargasso Sea: “I think of a region somewhere above this earth’s surface in which gravitation is inoperative…. I think that things raised from this earth’s surface to that region have been held there until shaken down by storms…. [T]hings raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era…. [F]ishes dried and hard, there a short time; others there long enough to putrefy…. [O]r living fishes, also—ponds of fresh water: oceans of salt water.

“But is it a part of this earth, and does it revolve with and over this earth—

“Or does it flatly overlie this earth…?

“I shall have to accept that, floating in the sky of this earth, there often are fields of ice as extensive as those on the Arctic Ocean—volumes of water in which are many fishes and frogs—tracts of lands covered with caterpillars—

“Aviators of the future. They fly up and up. Then they get out and walk. The fishing’s good: the bait’s right there. … Sometime I shall write a guide book to the Super-Sargasso Sea, for aviators, but just at present there wouldn’t be much call for it.”

That quote is actually cobbled together from pages 90-91, 179, and 182 of my copy of The Complete Books of Charles Fort, because one thing Fort is not good at is a straightforward, clear narrative. Reading his books is like experiencing someone else’s fever dream. But you can definitely see where Conan Doyle got his inspiration for “The Horror of the Heights.”

These days we know a lot more about the sky—or, more technically, about the atmosphere that surrounds the Earth. Researchers have labeled different parts of the atmosphere since the different layers have different properties. The layer closest to the earth, the one that we breathe and live in, is the troposphere. That’s where weather happens, that’s where most clouds are, and that’s where 99% of the water vapor in the entire atmosphere is located. The troposphere extends about 6 miles above the earth, or 10 km, or 33,000 feet. Mount Everest is 29,000 feet high, by the way, or 8,850 meters. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which extends to about 31 miles above the earth, or 50 km.

The jet stream, a steady wind that commercial jet planes use to help them cross oceans and continents faster, occurs roughly where the troposphere becomes the stratosphere. Above the jet stream, there’s hardly any turbulence. There are no updrafts, basically no weather, just increasingly thin air. Weather balloons and spy planes ascend into the stratosphere and that’s also where the ozone layer is, but there’s basically not much up that high.

Above the stratosphere is the mesosphere, where the air is too thin for any animal known to breathe, plus the air pressure is only about 1% of the pressure found at sea level. There just aren’t very many air molecules in the mesosphere. This is where meteors typically burn up, and the only vehicles that fly there are rockets. It extends to about 53 miles above the earth, or 85 km, and above that is the thermosphere, the exosphere, and then empty space, although it’s hard to know exactly where the thermosphere and exosphere end and space begins. It’s so far away from the earth’s surface that some satellites orbit within the thermosphere, and that’s where the northern and southern lights are generated as charged particles from the sun bounce against molecules.

But let’s return to the troposphere, our comfortable air-filled home. As far as we know, there aren’t any animals that live exclusively in the air and never land. Even the common swift, which lives almost its entire life in the air, catching insects and sleeping on the wing, has to land to lay eggs and take care of its babies. But what animals fly the highest?

As far as we know, the highest-flying bird is Rüppell’s vulture, an endangered bird that lives in central Africa. It’s been recorded flying as high as 37,000 feet, or 11,300 meters, and we know it was flying at 37,000 feet because, unfortunately, it was sucked into a jet engine and killed. There’s so little oxygen at that height that a human would pass out pretty much instantly, but the vulture’s blood contains a variant type of hemoglobin that is more efficient at carrying oxygen so that it gets more oxygen with every breath. It has a wingspan of 8 ½ feet, or 2.6 meters, and is brown or black with a lighter belly and a white ruff around the neck. Its tongue is spiky to help it pull meat off the bones of the dead animals it eats, but if there’s no meat left on a carcass, it will eat the hide and even bones. The more I learn about vultures, the more I like them.

Any bird that migrates above the Himalayas has to be able to fly incredibly high, since that’s where Mount Everest is and many other mountains that reach nearly into the stratosphere. The bar-headed goose has been recorded flying at 29,000 feet, or 8,800 meters, and in fact, mountaineers climbing Mount Everest have claimed to see and hear the geese flying overhead. The bar-headed goose has the same variant hemoglobin that Rüppell’s vulture has so it absorbs more oxygen with every breath.

The bar-headed goose is pale gray with black and white markings, especially black stripes on its head. It’s not an especially big goose, with a wingspan of about five feet, or 160 cm. It nests in China and Mongolia during the summer, then migrates to India and surrounding areas for the winter, and it generally crosses the Himalayas at night when winds aren’t as high.

The common crane is another high-flying bird, which has been recorded flying at 33,000 feet, or 10,000 meters, above the Himalayas. It’s a large bird with long legs and a wingspan of nearly 8 feet, or 2.4 meters. It’s gray with a red crown on its head and a white streak down its neck, and a tail that’s not so much a tail as just a bunch of floofy feathers stuck to its butt. Supposedly it flies so high to avoid eagles, but it’s a strong bird with a stabby beak that has been observed fighting eagles that attack it. It nests in Russia and Scandinavia but flies to many different wintering sites across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

So those are the three highest-flying birds known, but what about insects? How high can an insect fly?

Most insects can’t fly if the air is too cold, typically if it’s below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 degrees Celsius. Since the air is that cold just a few thousand feet above ground, that means most insects don’t fly very high, especially small ones. But not all of them.

Because insects are so small and lightweight, they’re often carried by the wind even if they aren’t technically flying, an activity called kiting. In 1961 during a study of insect migrations, an insect trap installed on an airplane caught a single winged termite at 19,000 feet, or 5.8 kilometers above sea level. An insect trap on a weather balloon collected a small spider at 16,000 feet, or 5 km. If you’re wondering how the spider got in the air in the first place, many small spider species travel to new habitats by ballooning, which in this case has nothing to do with a balloon. The spider lifts its abdomen until it feels a breeze, and then it spins a short piece of silk. The breeze lifts the silk and therefore the spider and carries it sometimes long distances.

Some bumblebee species live and fly just fine at high altitudes. The bumblebee Bombus impetuosus lives on Mount Everest, although not at its very top because nothing grows that high. It lives at around 10,600 feet, or 3,250 meters, and studies of how it flies show that it actually beats its wings in a different way from other bumblebees in order to fly at high altitudes where the air is thin.

So maybe there aren’t weird jellyfish-like creatures floating around in the stratosphere, but there are certainly other animals that occasionally reach incredible heights. So I guess the only thing the fictional pilot Joyce-Armstrong really had to worry about was freezing to death.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 158: Legless Lizards and Other Not-Snakes



What’s the difference between a snake and a legless lizard? Find out this week and learn about all kinds of interesting reptiles without legs that aren’t actually snakes!

The slow-worm. Not a snake:

Burton’s legless lizard. Not a snake:

The excitable delma. Not a snake:

The Mexican mole lizard. Not a snake or a worm:

The red worm lizard (Amphisbaena alba). Also not a snake or a worm, but honestly, it looks a lot like I imagine the Mongolian death worm to look:

The giant legless skink. Not a snake:

Stacy’s bachia. Not a snake:

Further reading (and this is where I got the Stacy’s bachia picture above):

Bachia lizards–look, no hands!

An Explosive Enigma from Kalmykia—the ‘Other’ Mongolian Death Worm?

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

A couple of weeks ago we discussed the Mongolian death worm and the possibility that it was an animal called an amphisbaenian, which is a reptile without legs that’s not a snake. But there are lots of other legless reptiles that aren’t snakes. So this week we’re going to learn about legless lizards and their friends.

Researchers have determined that leglessness evolved in reptiles many different times in species that aren’t related, often in species that spend at least part of their time underground. If the legs get in the way of burrowing or other movement, over time individuals born without legs or with much smaller legs end up finding more food than those with legs. That means they’re more likely to reproduce, and their offspring may inherit the trait of no legs or smaller legs.

Some legless lizards look so much like snakes at first glance that it can be hard to tell them apart. The common slow-worm, for instance, lives throughout most of Europe and part of Asia. It grows to about a foot and a half long, or 50 cm, and is brown. It mostly eats slugs and worms so it spends most of its time in damp places or underground. But while it looks superficially like a snake, it’s not a snake. It’s a lizard with no legs. Like some other lizard species, including many legless lizards, it can even drop its tail if it’s threatened and then regrows a little tail stump.

So how can you tell the difference between a legless lizard and a snake? The one big clue is if the reptile blinks. Snakes don’t have eyelids; instead, their eyes are protected by a transparent scale that covers the eye completely. Lizards have eyelids and blink. Legless lizards have a different head shape from snakes too, usually more blocky and less flattened. The tongue is not so much forked as just notched, and shorter and less slender than a snake’s tongue.

Species of one family of legless lizards do sometimes have legs. Honestly, this is almost as confusing as the whole deer and antelope mix-up from episode 116. The family is Pygopodidae and they’re actually most closely related to geckos although they don’t look much like geckos. They look like snakes, and to make things even more complicated, geckos and Pygopodids don’t have eyelids. I know I know, I just said lizards have eyelids but geckos are an exception. Pygopodids don’t have front legs at all, but some do have vestigial hind legs that look more like little flaps than actual legs. They’re sometimes called flap-footed lizards as a result. They live in Australia and New Guinea.

One Pygopodid is Burton’s legless lizard, which does actually have vestigial hind legs. It lives in parts of Australia and Papua New Guinea and is kind of a chunky reptile with a pointed nose. It’s brown or gray, sometimes with long stripes, and can grow to more than three feet long, or one meter. It eats other lizards, especially skinks, but will also sometimes eat small snakes.

Burton’s legless lizard mostly stays in leaf litter in forests. Sometimes it will twitch the end of its tail to attract a lizard, which it then grabs by the neck. It will swallow small lizards whole, but if it’s too big to swallow, it will just hold onto its neck until the lizard suffocates or just gives up out of exhaustion. It can also retract its eyes so they’re less likely to be injured if its prey fights back.

The excitable delma is another pygopodid, this one without any legs at all. It lives in many parts of Australia and can grow nearly two feet long, or 54 cm, but almost half that length is tail. It’s shy and nocturnal, so even though it’s very common, it’s seldom seen. It’s brown or grayish with darker stripes on its head. The reason it’s called the excitable delma is because it uses its long tail to jump, twisting and changing directions as it jumps repeatedly up to six inches off the ground, or 15 cm. It does this to escape from predators but it also sometimes just jumps around for the heck of it, according to observations of excitable delmas in captivity. It can also make a squeaky sound. It likes dry, rocky areas and eats insects.

There are other reptiles that look like snakes but aren’t, in addition to the legless lizards. We talked about the amphisbaenians in the Mongolian animals episode a few weeks ago, and also in episode 10. Amphisbaenians are sometimes called worm lizards because they look less like snakes than they do worms. They’re related to both legless lizards and snakes but lost their legs independently.

The amphisbaenian moves like a worm, not a snake. Its skin is loosely attached to its body so that it can move freely, and it bunches up its skin the way a worm bunches up its body, then extends it to move forward or backward. This kind of action is called peristalsis, by the way. Unlike worms, the amphisbaenian has scales because it’s a reptile, but the scales are often arranged in rings that make it look even more like an earthworm. Many amphisbaenians are pink like many earthworms, too.

Most amphisbaenians live underground their entire lives, hunting worms, insect grubs, and other small animals. In most cases they only come to the surface at night or after a heavy rain. Most have no legs at all, but one family consisting of four species, all of them native to Mexico, has little front legs. One of these species is the Mexican mole lizard, which can grow over a foot long, or more than 30 cm. It mostly eats soft-bodied animals like worms and termites, but it will occasionally eat small lizards. It’s pink and has little black dots for eyes and is actually really cute, but don’t let that fool you. If you are a worm, the Mexican mole lizard is a murder machine. It has sharp little teeth that it uses to bite pieces from its prey instead of swallowing them whole.

All the other known amphisbaenians have no legs at all, and for most species we know very little about them. The red worm lizard, for instance, lives throughout much of western South America and appears to be common, but it lives underground and is hardly ever seen. It’s the largest amphisbaenian known and can grow nearly three feet long, or 85 cm, although it’s only a few inches thick, or around 6 cm. It’s brown, reddish, or yellowish in color with a white belly and has tiny eyes that are barely visible. Its tail is blunt and rounded like other amphisbaenian tails, but its tail is tough enough to withstand bites from predators without being injured. If the red worm lizard feels threatened, it raises its head and tail and bends itself into a U shape so that it looks like it has two heads.

That’s why the amphisbaenian has that name, by the way. In ancient mythology, the amphisbaena was a serpent with a head on each end of its body. It was said to mostly eat ants, and that’s actually a good observation of the real amphisbaenian, which often eats ants, termites, and other insects.

Legless skinks are another group of lizards that either have no legs at all or just little flaps instead of hind legs. The males are the ones with the hind leg flaps, which they use to hold onto the female while mating. Most legless skinks look sort of like amphisbaenians, with a blunt-ended tail that’s sometimes hard to tell from the head, but more snakey than wormy for the most part.

One example is the giant legless skink, which is dark gray or black with no legs, and which lives in South Africa. It grows almost a foot and a half long, or 42 cm, and is a little bit of a chonk. We still don’t know much about it but it probably eats insects and other invertebrates like most legless skinks do.

A while back, Llewelly sent me a link to an article about Stacy’s bachia, a lizard that lives in the tropics of South America. It’s a member of the spectacled lizards, which all have lower eyelids that are transparent. That way the lizard can see even if its eyes are closed. I put a link to the article in the show notes if you want to read it.

Stacy’s bachia usually has no hind legs, although it may have little stubby ones, but it hatches with small front legs. But it spends most of its life burrowing in soil and in leaf litter as it hunts termites, ants, and other small animals, and eventually all its legs wear away to nothing.

Let’s finish with a mystery animal. Kalmykia is a small region of Russia, and the native people of the area are called Kalmyks. The Kalmyks report that there’s an animal that lives in both the steppes and in sand dunes in the desert that looks like a snake but isn’t a snake, which they actually call the short gray snake. It grows around 20 inches long, or 50 cm, and has smooth skin and a tail that’s short and rounded at the end. It has no legs. This report is from zoologist Karl Shuker’s blog, and check the show notes for a link. The person who told him about this animal also says it’s about six to eight inches thick, or up to 20 cm, so if that’s correct it’s even more of a chonk than the giant legless skink.

Kalmykia is west of Kazakhstan, which is west of Mongolia, so there’s always the possibility that this legless animal is related to or the same animal as the Mongolian death worm that we talked about in episode 156. But Kalmykia is actually pretty far away from Mongolia, and the short gray snake is different from the death worm in two important ways. One, reports say it has no bones. If this is true, it must be some kind of invertebrate, not a reptile. It’s also supposed to move like a worm, although remember that the amphisbaenian does too and it’s a reptile.

But the other thing reported about the short gray snake is much weirder than having no bones. Apparently if someone hits the animal in a particular place on its back—presumably with a stick—it EXPLODES. It explodes into goo that spreads for several feet in every direction, or about a meter, leaving nothing else behind.

It’s possible this isn’t a real animal but a folktale, something like American tall tales about the hoop snake that’s supposed to grab its tail in its mouth and roll itself along like a hoop. The hoop snake is not a real animal, in case you were wondering. There’s no way of telling whether the exploding boneless short gray snake is a real animal, a folktale, or reports of more than one real animal that have gotten mixed up in translation. Hopefully someone who lives in Kalmykia will investigate and find out more. In the meantime, don’t hit any animals with sticks. For one thing, that’s mean. For another, it might explode and leave you covered in goo.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 156: Animals of Mongolia



In honor of my new favorite band, The Hu, let’s learn about some animals from their country, Mongolia! (You can also watch the “Wolf Totem” video with English lyrics.)

The Hu. Oh my heart:

If you need the podcast’s feed URL, it’s https://strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net/feed/podcast/

A handsome prize-winning domesticated yak and rider (photo taken from this site):

The saiga, an antelope with a serious snoot:

A Bactrian camel (photo by *squints* Brent Huffman, looks like):

The taimen, a fish that would swallow you whole if it could:

Further watching:

A clip from the TV show Beast Man showing how moist the soil is in parts of the Gobi

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Recently, podcaster Moxie recommended a band she liked on her excellent podcast Your Brain on Facts. The band is called The Hu, spelled H-U, and she mentioned they were from Mongolia. I checked the band out and FELL IN LOVE WITH THEM OH MY GOSH, so not only have I been recommending them to everyone, I also want to learn more about their country. So let’s learn about some interesting animals from Mongolia.

But first, a quick note. About six months ago I had to migrate the site to an actual podcasting host, since I’d run out of memory on my own site. Well, there doesn’t seem to be any point to keep the old site open anymore since all the podcasting apps I checked appear to have the new feed and everything is on the new website. So in another week or two, the old site will close. If you suddenly stop receiving new episodes, please email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com and let me know what app you use for podcast listening, so I can get it updated. In the meantime, if your app gives you the option of entering a podcast feed manually, I’ve made a new page on the website, strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net, where you can copy and paste the feed URL. It’s also in the show notes. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if something isn’t working. Now, back to Mongolia and its animals.

Mongolia is located in Asia, north of China and south of Russia, with the Gobi Desert to the south and various mountain ranges to the north and west. You actually probably know some Mongolian history without realizing it. You’ve heard of the Great Wall of China, right? Well, it was built to keep out the Mongols, who would ride their horses into China and raid villages. Genghis Khan was the most famous Mongol in history, a fearsome warrior who conquered most of Eurasia in the early 13th century.

While you’re thinking about that, here’s a short clip of my favorite Hu song, called “Wolf Totem.” There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the official video.

Oh my gosh I love that song.

Anyway, Mongolia has short summers but long, bitterly cold winters. Many people are still nomadic, a traditional culture that’s horse-based. A lot of Mongolia is grassland referred to as the steppes, which isn’t very good for farming, but which is great for horses. Domesticated animals include horses, goats, and a bovid called the yak. Let’s start with that one.

The yak is closely related to both domestic cattle and to bison, and is a common domesticated animal in much of Asia. The wild yak is native to the Himalaya Mountains in Eurasia. It’s a different species from the domesticated yak and is larger, with a big bull wild yak standing up to 7.2 feet at the shoulder, or 2.2 meters. A big bull domesticated yak is closer to 4 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or almost 1.4 meters. The wild yak is usually black or brown, but domesticated yaks may be other colors and have white markings. Occasionally a wild yak is born that has golden fur.

Both male and female yaks have horns, although the males usually have larger horns with a broader spread than the females. The male also has a larger shoulder hump than the female, much like bison, and males are also larger and heavier. The reason the domesticated yak is so popular in the mountains and in areas where winters are long and cold, like Mongolia, is that it has long, dense hair with a soft undercoat that keeps it warm. It’s also naturally adapted to high altitudes where there’s less oxygen, with large lungs and heart. As a result, it doesn’t do well in lower altitudes and can even die of heat if it gets too warm, since it can’t sweat.

The yak is domesticated for its meat and milk, to pull plows, as a riding animal, and for its soft undercoat which is combed out in spring and used to make yarn. Even the yak’s droppings are useful, since they’re mostly undigested plant fibers that burn really well once they’re dry, so they can be used instead of wood to build fires.

In Mongolia, yak milk is used to make butter, cheese, and yogurt. And vodka. Yak races and yak festivals are increasingly popular as tourist attractions, but yak herding is a tradition dating back thousands of years.

The wild yak is a protected species where it still lives, mostly in China, India, and Tibet, but it’s still threatened by poaching and habitat loss due to domesticated yak herds pushing out their wild cousins. In the wild, the yak prefers to live in elevations too high for trees to grow. It eats grass and other plant material and can survive on a diet too poor to sustain cattle. This is because it has a larger rumen and the plants it eats can stay in its digestive tract for longer to extract as many nutrients as possible.

It’s rare for a domesticated animal to also be endangered, but yak herding in Mongolia is in steep decline, with 70% fewer yaks raised now than there were twenty years ago. There are a number of reasons for the decline. More people are moving to cities in Mongolia since they can make more money there instead of farming. Some farmers have started raising cattle or yak-cattle hybrids instead of yaks, since cattle and cattle hybrids produce more milk and meat even though they eat considerably more than yaks do. Worse, cloth made of sheep’s wool and other fibers is being exported by Chinese farmers labeled as Mongolian yak wool, which has caused the market for actual yak wool to crash. Yak wool is as soft and warm as cashmere, which comes from goats, but yaks are much better for the fragile mountain environment in Mongolia than goats are. Hopefully, increased tourism, including yak festivals, will help farmers make money from their traditional ways of life.

Instead of mooing like a cow, the yak grunts, although wild yak are usually silent. This is what a domesticated yak sounds like:

[yak grunting]

Another bovid, this one found only in Mongolia, is the Mongolian saiga. Some researchers consider it a subspecies of the saiga that was once found throughout Eurasia while others consider it a separate species. It’s critically endangered, possibly with as few as 5,000 animals left in the wild, threatened by poaching and competition with livestock. But the saiga frequently has twins instead of just one baby at a time, which helps its numbers increase quickly as long as people stop shooting the males for their horns. Some people think have medicinal qualities. They don’t, of course. The saiga almost went extinct back in the 1920s, but it recovered, so it can recover again as long as people leave it alone.

The saiga stands nearly three feet tall at the shoulder, or 81 cm, and its coat is usually a sandy pale brown in color. In winter it grows a long coat to keep warm. It’s also rather stocky in shape compared to other antelopes, which helps keep it warm too. But the main adaptation it has for cold weather is its nose. The saiga has a remarkable snoot. It almost looks like it has a little trunk. Its muzzle is considerably enlarged to make plenty of room for large nasal passages, which warms air before it reaches the lungs and also filters dust from the air. The nostrils point downward. The males have pale-colored horns that can grow nearly nine inches long, or 22 cm, although the closely related Russian saiga has horns that are almost twice that long. The horns grow upward and slightly back. The saiga migrates across the steppes and lives in herds that are sometimes quite large.

Another animal that’s domesticated but still lives wild in some parts of southern Mongolia and northern China is the Bactrian camel. That’s the camel that has two humps instead of just one. Like the yak, the domesticated and wild Bactrian camels are different species although they’re closely related. The wild Bactrian camel is smaller with a flatter head. A domesticated Bactrian camel can stand up to 7 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or 2.3 meters.

The wild Bactrian camel is critically endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, although it’s protected in both Mongolia and China. There may be only 1,000 of them left in the wild, and some of those are hybrids of wild and feral domesticated Bactrian camels. Since they’re different species, offspring of wild and domesticated Bactrian camels are often infertile. A wild Bactrian captive breeding program in Mongolia is underway and has been successful so far.

When you think of a camel, you probably think of a hot desert. Camels of all kinds are well adapted to desert life. The one-hump camel is a dromedary, which is a domesticated animal native to the Sahara Desert in northern Africa and other arid regions. But the two-humped Bactrian camel is adapted to a different kind of desert, the cold desert. Although it can get hot in the Gobi Desert in summer, winters are long and very cold, but mainly a desert just doesn’t get much rain. In the case of the Gobi, what little moisture it receives in winter is mainly from snow and frost, although it also gets an average of almost 8 inches of rain in the summer, or 19 cm.

The wild Bactrian camel, therefore, has to be able to survive without a lot of water. Some people think camels store water in their humps, but the humps are actually made up of fat. Fat is full of water, though, and when the camel can’t find any food or water, its body will reabsorb the fat to keep itself alive. If you see a camel with floppy or skinny humps, you know it’s not had much to eat recently and has had to use up its fat stores.

The wild Bactrian camel grows thick fur in winter to keep it warm in temperatures that can drop to -27 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, or -32.8 Celsius, but it sheds a lot of this heavy coat in summer when temperatures can soar to 99 F, or 37 C. Unlike most animals, it can safely eat snow without risking hypothermia, where the body core temperature falls to dangerous levels. It can also safely drink water that’s even saltier than the ocean. It lives in small herds that travel across the desert from one water source to another, since if it stayed in one area it would soon eat all the food available. It eats any plants it can find.

Mongolia has several rivers and lakes, so naturally it has some interesting water animals too. The taimen [TIE-min] is a large fish sometimes called the Eurasian river trout or Siberian giant trout, but it’s actually more closely related to the salmon. It lives in parts of Mongolia and Russia but is threatened by overfishing and water pollution. Until recently in Mongolia, people didn’t eat much fish, plus the taimen was considered the offspring of an ancient river spirit so was left alone. These days, unfortunately, not only are more people eating fish in Mongolia, sport fishing has become a big tourist draw. Conservationists are encouraging anglers to practice catch and release to save the remaining population.

The taimen grows up to six feet long, or two meters, and is a vicious predator. It will eat anything it can catch, including smaller taimen, and in fact will occasionally try to swallow a fish that’s too big, and will suffocate and die as a result. It lives in swift-moving water but is sometimes found in lakes. It grows slowly and lives a long time, and there are rumors of it hunting in packs. As a result, it’s sometimes called the river wolf. Stay away from anything called the river wolf, that’s my advice.

It wouldn’t be an episode about Mongolian animals if we didn’t talk about a mystery animal called the Mongolian death worm. We talked about it once before way back in episode ten, about electric animals, but that was a long time ago so let’s look at it again now.

The story goes that a huge wormlike creature lives in the western or southern Gobi Desert, and most of the time it stays below ground. During the rains of June and July it sometimes comes to the surface. It’s generally described as looking like a sausage or an intestine, red or reddish in color, as thick as a person’s arm, and as long as three or four feet, or up to about 1.5 meters. Its head and tail look alike, sort of like a giant fat earthworm, although some reports say it has some pointy bristles or spines at one end. Touching a death worm is supposed to lead to a quick, painful death, because why would you name something a death worm if it didn’t kill you? Some people report that it can even spit venom or emit an electrical shock that can kill people or animals at a distance.

The National Geographic Channel has a show called Beast Man, or used to, I don’t know, but in 2018 it aired an episode about the Mongolian death worm. I didn’t watch the whole episode, just clips, and while they didn’t actually find one, it was interesting. One lady they interviewed, who saw a death worm when she was a little girl, said it was about two feet long, or 60 cm, reddish in color, and its head and tail looked the same. This matches up with what other people have reported. In one clip, the show’s host tests the soil moisture content in the southern Gobi and is surprised that underneath the dry surface, the ground is actually quite moist. I’ll put a link to that one in the show notes.

There are actually earthworms that live in parts of the Gobi, including two species described in 2013. The earthworms don’t resemble reports of the Mongolian death worm, but if an earthworm can survive, other soft-bodied creatures can too. That’s assuming that the death worm is actually a worm and not a reptile or amphibian of some kind.

The best suggestion for what the death worm might be is an animal called the amphisbaenian. It’s sometimes also called the worm lizard, and while it’s not any kind of lizard, it is a reptile. Amphisbaenians live in many parts of the world, including most of South America and parts of North America, parts of Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. But since amphisbaenians live almost all of their lives underground, it’s very likely that species unknown to science live in other places. And much of Mongolia is extremely remote and probably not very well explored by scientists.

Amphisbaenians resemble snakes but they also resemble worms. The eyes are tiny and can be hard to spot, and the head and tail look very similar as a result. Many species are pink or reddish in color, although some are blue or other colors, including spotted, and many have scales that grow in a ringed pattern that make it look even more like an earthworm. But they’re not big animals, generally around six inches long, or 15 cm. Also, they’re slender like an earthworm, not as big around as someone’s arm. And they’re completely harmless to humans and large animals.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be a big amphisbaenian living in the remote parts of the Gobi, rarely seen even by the people who live there. Or, of course, the Mongolian death worm might be a completely different kind of animal, one totally unknown to science—maybe one that’s related to the amphisbaenian but radically different in appearance. Or it might be a mythical monster, although there are enough plausible-sounding witness sightings to think there’s something in the Gobi that looks like a big fat red horrible worm, even if it’s not actually dangerous.

What worries me, though, is that there don’t seem to be any sightings from recent times. Only old people report having seen a death worm back when they were young. Considering that so many Mongolian animals are endangered, it could be that the death worm is also declining in numbers so that fewer of them are around to be seen. Let’s hope Mongolian scientists are out there looking for the death worm and that they figure out what it is so it can be protected and studied in its natural habitat.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at Patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 150: Hamsters, Gerbils, and Ferrets



This week we venture into the land of CUTE to learn about hamsters, ferrets, and some other small domesticated animals. Thanks to Kim and the Angel City Ferret Club for the suggestions!

Hamsters are SO CUTE:

Hamsters have giant cheek pouches to carry food in:

Gerbils are also SO CUTE:

Ferrets are SO CUTE in a totally different way:

The black-footed ferret does not want anything to do with the domestic ferret, thank you:

An extremely complicated but neat way to use your pet’s exercise wheel to generate power:

Hamster-Powered Night Light

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Back in episode 106 we learned about domestication, especially the domestication of dogs and other canids. But recently, Kim suggested an episode about the domestication of other animals, like hamsters and ferrets. Then the Angel City Ferret Club suggested I talk about ferrets too. So this week, let’s learn about hamsters, gerbils, and ferrets.

Hamsters are rodents, and there are lots of different species. The most common domesticated hamster is the golden hamster, also called the Syrian hamster, which is indeed from Syria. A DNA study of domesticated golden hamsters indicate that they’re all descended from a single female captured in Syria in 1930 and kept as a laboratory animal. It wasn’t long before some of her babies became pets, because hamsters are incredibly cute.

The golden hamster is about five inches long, or 13 cm, and is a chunky little rodent with a little nub of a tail, short legs, and rounded ears. And a little pink nose and shiny black eyes. I had a pet hamster named Wembley when I was little. It’s a golden tan in color with lighter fur underneath, and some breeds of domesticated golden hamsters may have white spots on the body or long fur.

Some other hamster species, most of which aren’t kept as pets, can grow much larger than the typical golden hamster. The European hamster, which lives in parts of eastern Europe, can grow up to 14 inches long, or 35 cm. It’s mostly brown with white patches. One of the smallest hamster species is Campbell’s dwarf hamster, which is sometimes kept as a pet but is originally from Mongolia. It grows about three inches long, or 8 cm. It’s brown-gray in color with a darker stripe down the middle of its back and pale gray fur underneath.

All hamsters have cheek pouches that extend down to their shoulders. In the wild, a hamster tucks food into its cheek pouches to carry back to its burrow, where it pushes the food out by pressing its forefeet against its sides and pushing them forward. Campbell’s dwarf hamster has cheek pouches that are big even compared to other hamsters. They extend all the way down the sides of its body.

Hamsters in the wild like warm areas without a lot of rain, like deserts and dry grasslands. They dig well and spend most of their time underground when they’re not out searching for food. They’re most active at dawn and dusk, although they’re nocturnal to some degree also. In cold weather some species hibernate for short periods of time, generally only a few days. A hamster’s burrow can be pretty elaborate, with several entrances, a cozy sleeping burrow, a pantry where the hamster stores food, and even a bathroom where the hamster urinates. Hamsters are hindgut fermenters, and like some other rodents and rabbits, some of the poops they produce aren’t waste material, they’re partially digested food that the hamster eats again to gain as much nutrients from it as possible.

Hamsters are omnivores, eating seeds and other plant material as well as insects and other small animals. Occasionally wild hamsters hunt together to catch insects, although in general the hamster is a solitary animal. In addition to its ordinary diet of hamster food, a pet hamster likes seeds and nuts, green vegetables, root vegetables like carrots, a little bit of fruit, and other plant foods, but shouldn’t be given people food since it can contain too much salt, sugar, or other additives that can harm it. Give your hamster deep bedding that it can burrow into to sleep and dig around in, but cedar shavings can be bad for their lungs. Paper bedding made for small pets is safest. And, of course, your hamster needs to chew to keep its teeth from growing too long, since like other rodents its teeth continue to grow throughout its life. It also needs an exercise wheel and toys designed for hamsters so it can get exercise and have fun. You can find good books about how to care for a hamster in the library. I mean you can find a book on hamster care in the library, not how to turn your hamster into a tiny furry librarian.

Hamsters don’t see very well but have a good sense of smell and hearing, and in fact they communicate mostly in the ultrasonic range—too high-pitched for humans to hear most of their calls. Generally hamsters only call to each other during courtship, when a male and female are trying to decide if they’ve found a good mate.

I tried to find audio of hamster calls, pitched down so humans could hear it, but had no luck. I guess the sound of their calls is a secret only hamsters know.

Gerbils are also closely related to mice and therefore to hamsters, and have a lot in common with the hamster. Both are about the same size but the gerbil is smaller, less chunky, and has a much longer tail. The tail has fur on it and helps the gerbil retain its balance while climbing.

There are a lot of gerbil species, all of them native to dry areas like deserts and grasslands in parts of Asia and Africa. The Mongolian gerbil was domesticated in the late 19th century but wasn’t well known until the 1950s when it became a popular pet. In the wild the Mongolian gerbil is a gray-brown color but pets have been selectively bred to produce colors from white to black with various patterns. Unlike the hamster, the gerbil is a social animal and is healthier when it lives with at least one other gerbil. It also likes to burrow in its bedding and needs to chew to keep its teeth from growing too long. It’s important to get an exercise wheel that’s solid instead of having rungs, since otherwise the gerbil could catch its tail between the rungs and get injured.

In the wild, gerbils live in groups with extensive burrows, sometimes connected with the burrows of other groups. It has a good sense of smell and if a gerbil whose smell it doesn’t recognize approaches, the two will probably fight. The Mongolian gerbil grows about 2 ½ inches long, or 6 cm, not counting its tail, which is about the same length as its body. But the biggest species of gerbil is the great gerbil from central Asia. It grows up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, not counting its tail. That’s the size of a squirrel.

If a gerbil feels threatened or nervous, it may thump its hind legs on the ground to warn other gerbils. Other gerbils that hear the thumping may also start thumping. Sometimes pet gerbils will start thumping in response to rhythmic sounds in a house, like a washing machine on a spin cycle. This is hilarious, but of course if your pet gerbil is thumping you should look around to see if there’s something near its cage that it finds frightening, like a pet dog or a light that’s too bright. This is what a gerbil sounds like when stamping its tiny feet.

[gerbil thumping sound]

Next, let’s look at the ferret. The ferret isn’t a rodent. It’s a type of weasel called the European polecat, which has been domesticated. Unlike the hamster and gerbil, which are small and somewhat delicate animals, the ferret is much larger and more robust. It grows nearly two feet long, or almost 60 cm, with a long, slender, flexible body, long neck, and short legs.

The ferret is generally a crepuscular animal, meaning it’s most active at dawn and dusk. It’s solitary in the wild, but domesticated ferrets are much more social. It likes to burrow, and in the wild it sleeps in a burrow during the day.

No one is sure when the ferret was domesticated, but it may be descended from animals kept to hunt for rats and rabbits. Like other members of the weasel family, ferrets are carnivores and evolved to be slender and short-legged to fit into burrows of smaller animals. There’s even a term for hunting with a ferret, called ferreting. It was also used to keep mice and rats out of grain stores. Ferret breeders selected for white or albino ferrets because they were easier for their handlers to see, so many pet ferrets are albinos.

The ferret makes a good pet although it’s an intelligent, active animal and will get into all sorts of mischief if it doesn’t have enough to do. It likes to climb, explore, and solve puzzles, and needs lots of exercise and a safe place to play. The ferret can be litter trained like a cat and trained to wear a harness and walk on a leash like a dog. It’s sociable so it’s always better to have more than one ferret if you can.

The ferret needs to eat frequently, so it’s a good idea to keep a feeder full of ferret kibble where your pet can eat whenever it’s hungry even if you’re not home. Since ferrets are carnivores like cats are, your pet’s diet should be high in animal-based protein and fat. If you can’t find ferret food in your area, you can feed high-quality cat kibble, but food formulated just for ferrets is best. For treats, ferrets like cooked eggs, freeze-dried liver treats that you can get for dog training, and small pieces of cooked meat. You shouldn’t feed fruit to your ferret, since it can lead to digestive issues.

Ferrets are illegal to own in some areas because escaped and released ferrets can breed in the wild and cause a lot of problems as an invasive species. This is particularly true in small, fragile ecosystems like islands, so it makes sense that Hawaii doesn’t allow ferrets or many other animals as pets, including gerbils and hamsters.

Ferrets occupy the same ecological niche as the black-footed ferret, and the black-footed ferret is the most endangered mammal in North America. It was even declared extinct in 1979, but a small population was re-discovered in 1981 in Wyoming. Some of these animals were captured for a captive breeding program, so even though the black-footed ferret was declared extinct in the wild in 1996, the breeding program was able to reintroduce ferrets in parts of its original range in the western part of North America. It’s now considered an endangered species, which is still pretty bad but not as bad as extinct.

The black-footed ferret primarily eats prairie dogs, and prairie dogs are also on the decline due to habitat loss, poisoning and killing of them by ranchers and farmers, and disease. So saving the black-footed ferret also means saving the prairie dog. However, pet prairie dogs are legal to own in most states even though they’re not really domesticated animals and they can spread diseases fatal to humans, like bubonic plague. And since prairie dogs don’t breed well in captivity many animals sold as pets were captured in the wild, and many of them die soon after being captured.

But while feral domesticated ferrets are a problem in some areas, there don’t seem to be any feral populations of ferrets in the United States. It looks like ferret owners in North America take good care of their pets and make sure they don’t get out and cause problems for wildlife.

California has a lot of restrictions about what animals can be kept as pets. Ferrets are not allowed. Neither are gerbils, prairie dogs, or hedgehogs. But you can keep hamsters and chinchillas as pets in California, rabbits, camels, wolf-dog hybrids, and most birds including ostriches. The only reason I even mention California’s restrictions on pets is because the Angel City Ferret Club is working to get the ferret ban changed, and they told me all about it.

I don’t live in California so I don’t want to get involved in the debate. But wherever you live and whatever pet you have, always make sure that you know how to take care of it properly and that you only buy your pet from an ethical and reputable breeder. And, of course, never release a pet into the wild if you can’t take care of it anymore. Most of the time your pet will die of cold, starvation, injury, or predation from a wild animal. If you can’t find someone who can take your pet, contact your veterinarian who can give you information about rescue services in your area.

That is a super depressing way to end an episode, so let’s finish up with something cute and interesting. If you’ve ever watched a hamster or other small pet run on an exercise wheel, you may have wondered how much energy the little fuzzball was generating and if it could charge your phone or power a light. Well, other people have wondered the same thing. I found a how-to article at Otherpower.com detailing how they made a working power generator from a hamster wheel. Their pet hamster Skippy was easily able to power a nightlight while running on his wheel. I’ve put a link to the article in the show notes. It looks really complicated but if you’re an engineer type of person you might look at it and think, “Oh, that’s simple and fun! Let’s try it!”

There’s even a new company based in Taiwan that’s marketing exercise equipment that generates energy as people use it. People are a lot bigger and stronger than hamsters, so we can generate a lot more energy by running on a treadmill or working out on a stationary bike, enough to power the lights in the room where the equipment is. Gyms that have installed the equipment report that users feel more motivated to exercise longer and harder when they know they’re generating power. That’s good for the person and helps reduce energy use for the gym. And that’s good for everyone, including our small pets.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 146: Three strange animals



The next few weeks will be all listener suggestions! This week, Dylan and Genevieve of What Are You? Podcast request a strange fish, Kim suggests a strange invertebrate, and Callum suggests a strange bird. Thanks for the great suggestions!

An archerfish, pew pew pew:

A regular roly poly and a spiky yellow woodlouse. Can you spot which is which??

A nightjar. Turn out light pls, is too bright:

A white-winged nightjar showing off his wings:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I’m really, really behind in getting to suggestions, as you will probably know if you have sent in a suggestion and you think I’ve forgotten all about it. So before the end of the year, which is coming up frighteningly fast, I’m going to try to get to a lot of the older suggestions. So this week we’re going to learn about a fish, an invertebrate, and a bird.

We’ll start with the archerfish, suggested by Dylan and Genevieve, who are part of the What Are You? Podcast. If you don’t already listen to What Are You?, I really recommend it. It’s a new animal podcast that’s especially for younger kids. If you like Cool Facts About Animals, you’ll like What Are You? Anyway, Dylan and Genevieve both really like the archerfish, so let’s find out why it’s such a weird and interesting fish.

The archerfish isn’t one fish, it’s a family of fish who all catch insects in an unusual way. Most archerfish species are small, maybe 7 inches at the most, or 18 cm, but the largescale archerfish can sometimes grow up to 16 inches long, or 40 cm. All archerfish live in Asia or Australia, especially southeast Asia. They like rivers and streams, sometimes ponds, and a few species live in mangrove swamps and the mouths of rivers where the water is brackish. That means it’s saltier than ordinary fresh water but not as salty as the ocean.

The reason the archerfish is so weird is the way it catches insects. Think about its name for a minute. Archer-fish. Hmm. An archer is someone who uses a bow and arrow, but obviously the archerfish doesn’t have arms and hands so it can’t shoot tiny arrows at insects. But it can shoot water at insects, and that’s exactly what it does.

The archerfish has really good eyesight, and it learns to compensate for the way light refracts when it passes from air to water. When it sees an insect or other small animal, maybe a spider sitting on a branch above its stream, it rises to the surface but only far enough so that its mouth is above water. Then it forms its tongue and mouth to make a sort of channel for the water to pass through. Then it contracts its gill covers, which shoots a stream of water out of its mouth. But because it shapes it mouth in a really specific way, the stream of water turns into a blob as it flies through the air, like a tiny water bullet. The water hits the spider, which falls from its branch and into the stream, where the archerfish slurps it up.

But the archerfish has to learn how to aim. Young archerfish aren’t very good at it, and they have to practice to shoot accurately and far. They can even learn by watching other archerfish shooting water, which is rare among all animals but practically unheard-of in fish.

Sometimes the archerfish will shoot underwater, sending out a jet of water instead of a bullet. It does this mostly to expose small animals hidden in the silt at the bottom of a pond or stream. And sometimes, of course, if the insect is close enough to the surface of the water, the archerfish will just jump up and grab it.

The archerfish shoots water with a force that’s actually six times stronger than its muscles would allow, and it does this by taking advantage of natural water dynamics. This means it uses a lot less energy to shoot water than if it was only using its muscles, and it gets a better result. It can shoot water up to ten feet away, or three meters, to bring down an insect or other small animal, although of course it prefers closer targets.

Archerfish do well in aquariums, so they’ve been studied by scientists to find out how smart they are. It turns out, they’re pretty darn clever. The archerfish takes into account the size of its target to adjust how strong a blob of water it needs to shoot. It also recognizes individual humans by their facial features. So it’s probably a good thing that they don’t have little arms and hands.

Next, Kim sent me some great suggestions way back in August, and I feel terrible that I’ve taken so long to get to any of them. We’ll look at one of those today, an invertebrate officially called a terrestrial isopod, although you may know it by one of a lot of different names. My preferred name for it is roly poly, but it’s also called a sowbug, a wood louse, a pillbug, a doodlebug, and many others.

You have probably seen roly polies, because they’re really common. The most well-known family are the various species that can actually roll up into a ball when threatened, Armadillidiidae, and someone with a sense of humor came up with that name. They’re native to Europe, but they’ve been introduced all over the world. They’re gray or brown-gray in color, armored on the back with overlapping segments, with seven pairs of little legs underneath and a pair of little antennae.

Roly polies eat decaying plant material and sometimes living plants, especially if the plant is wet. In a pinch, they will also eat dead insects and other decaying matter, but mostly they just want that yummy rotting leaf. As a result, they’re valuable decomposers in the food web. They also need moisture to breathe, so they’re often found in soil, under rocks and leaf litter, and in moss.

But Armadillidiidae isn’t the only family of roly polies. Most roly polies actually can’t roll up at all, so I should start using one of their other names, woodlouse. Technically, woodlice are crustaceans. You know, related to crabs and lobsters. But they are infinitely cuter than other crustaceans. And if you’re curious about whether they taste like lobster, apparently they taste awful, like urine. I don’t even want to think about how anyone knows what a woodlouse tastes like, or how anyone knows what urine tastes like. Yuck. Anyway, they’re descended from marine isopods that ventured out on land over 300 million years ago, but a few species have returned to the water and are aquatic.

All woodlice have segmented, flattened bodies with seven pairs of legs. When a woodlouse molts its exoskeleton, it does it in two stages. It molts the back half first, then the front half a few days later. This means that it’s not as unprotected as other arthropods that shed the whole exoskeleton at once.

There’s another arthropod called a pill millipede that looks a lot like a woodlouse, including being able to roll into a ball. But it’s actually not very closely related to the woodlouse. Pill millipedes have 18 pairs of legs and a smoother appearance.

Almost all woodlice are gray or brown, although a few may have small yellow spots. But one is actually yellow and looks very different from other woodlice. It’s called the spiky yellow woodlouse, which is a perfect description. It’s critically endangered, because it only lives in one part of the world, a volcanic tropical island in the South Atlantic, Saint Helena. It lives in trees, but it’s so threatened by habitat loss and introduced rats and other non-native species of woodlice that a captive breeding program is underway to save it. There may be as few as 100 individuals left in the wild, but fortunately it’s a lot easier to keep in captivity than, say, 100 rhinoceroses.

Let’s finish with a bird. Callum suggested caprimulgiformes, which includes nightjars, potoos, oilbirds, and whippoorwills. We’ve talked about a few of them before in previous episodes, including the oilbird in episode 121 and the Nechisar nightjar in episode 70. I know we’ve talked about the tawny frogmouth somewhere, but I can’t remember which episode. Maybe it was a Patreon episode. But we’ve never looked at most caprimulgiformes, so let’s do that now, because they are weird birds. We’ll focus on the nightjars, which are also sometimes called goatsuckers, not to be confused with the chupacabra, which also means goatsucker. In the olden days people used to think nightjars snuck into barns at night and suckled milk from dairy goats. They don’t, though. Birds can’t digest milk.

Nightjars and their close relatives are nocturnal, although some species are mostly crepuscular, which means they’re most active at dawn and dusk. Like the owl, the nightjar’s feathers are very soft so that it can fly silently. It eats insects, especially moths.

There are three subfamilies of nightjars: the typical nightjars, the eared nightjars, and the nighthawks, with lots of species in each group. They live throughout most of the world and they all look similar. We’ll take one typical nightjar as an example, the European nightjar. It lives throughout most of Europe and part of Asia, although it migrates to Africa for the winter. It’s brown and gray mottled with lighter and darker speckles, which makes it really hard to see when it’s sitting on a branch or on the ground in dead leaves. Its head appears flattened and it has a short, broad bill. Its feet are small. It has large eyes and sees well even in darkness. It grows to about 11 inches long, or 28 cm, with a wingspan of about two feet, or 60 cm.

The female nightjar lays her eggs directly on the ground instead of building a nest. Usually she’ll pick a spot where long grass or other vegetation hangs over to form a little hidden alcove. Since the nightjar is so well camouflaged, it can incubate its eggs on the ground in plain sight and probably won’t be seen. If a predator does approach the nest, the parents will pretend to be injured, so that the predator follows the supposedly injured bird hoping for an easy meal. Once the nightjar has drawn the predator far enough away from the nest, it flies away. Some nightjars can even pretend to be injured while flying.

Some nightjars have beautiful, haunting songs while some are nearly silent. The male chuck will’s widow, which lives in the southeastern United States and much of Mexico, sings at night and also claps his wings to show off for females. His song sounds like this.

[chuck will’s widow song]

Because nightjars are so well camouflaged and mostly nocturnal, they’re hard for birdwatchers and scientists to spot. As a result, there are undoubtedly nightjar species still unknown to science. This is the case with the Nechisar nightjar, which we talked about in episode 70. It’s only known from a single wing found on an otherwise squashed dead bird that was hit by a car. And until 1997, the white-winged nightjar from South America was only known from two museum specimens.

Since the first white-winged nightjar nest was discovered in 1997, researchers have learned a lot about it. It’s only been found in a few places in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and it likes open lowlands and savannas. The male has white markings on his wings, and during breeding season he finds a termite mound to stand on, spreads his wings to show them off, and then flies up. As he does, his wings make a distinctive sound. Since most nightjars fly silently like owls, the beating of the male’s wings is intended to attract a female. This is what it sounds like:

[white-winged nightjar wings beating]

Like other nightjars, the white-winged nightjar female lays her eggs directly on the ground. Some researchers think she times the eggs to hatch around the full moon so the parent birds have more light to forage for insects. In years where there’s lots of food, the female may lay eggs in a second nest near the first one and incubate them while the male feeds the babies of the first nest.

Many nightjar species are endangered due to habitat loss, but it’s also killed by cars more often than other birds because of its habit of sitting in the road. That does not strike me as being very smart. Maybe it needs to talk to the archerfish for some advice.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

This is what the little nightjar sounds like. It lives in South America:

[little nightjar calls]


Episode 139: Skunks and Other Stinkers



This week we’re commemorating my HOUSE getting SKUNKED by a SKUNK and it was STINKY

The skunk, stinky but adorkable, especially when it’s eating yellow jackets:

The stink badger looks like a shaved skunk with a bobbed tail:

The zorilla wants to be your stinky friend:

A woodhoopoe, most magnificent:

A Eurasian hoopoe, looking snazzy:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about some animals that are infamous for their stinkiness. This wasn’t the topic I had planned on for this week, but last week my house got skunked. That is, a skunk sprayed an animal very close to my house, which means I woke up at 4:45am gagging from the smell of point-blank skunk odor. And this was with the windows closed and the air conditioning going. It was so bad I thought I would throw up, so I yanked on my clothes, grabbed my purse, and fled the house at 5:30am. I went to work early—don’t worry, I got coffee on the way—and spent the whole day smelling skunk faintly where the smell clung to my hair and, oddly, my phone case. Also I spent the whole day complaining to my coworkers.

Fortunately, when I got home the smell had dissipated somewhat, so I opened all the windows and doors and by the next morning it was mostly gone. But it got me wondering why skunk spray smells so, so bad and how many other stinky animals are out there.

The skunk is native to North and South America, although there are two species of related animals that live in some of the islands of the Malay Archipelago, called stink badgers. No seriously, that’s really what they’re called. Skunks and stink badgers are related to actual badgers and to weasels, but not closely.

The stink badger is black or dark brown with a white stripe that runs from its head down the back of its neck and along its spine, and finishes at its little short tuft of a tail. The skunk is black or dark brown with one or two white stripes or white spots, depending on the species, which continues down its long fluffy tail. In all cases, though, these stinky animals are vividly patterned with dark fur and bright white markings as a warning to other animals. Do not get too close or there’s a world of stink coming your way. Also, I can verify from my own experience that the white markings of a skunk make it much easier to see in the darkness and therefore avoid. Since the skunk is crepuscular, meaning it’s most active around dusk and dawn, that’s important. The stink badger is more nocturnal than the skunk.

Both the skunk and the stink badger have relatively short legs with sharp claws. Both are relatively small, about the size of a cat. Both are also good diggers and spend the daytime asleep in their burrows. In winter the skunk doesn’t hibernate but it does stay in its burrow more, spending most of its time asleep. This is the best way to deal with winter cold, if you ask me.

Female skunks share a den in the winter but males are usually solitary. This means the females retain a higher amount of body fat when the weather warms up, since they didn’t need to burn that fat to keep themselves warm. Researchers think this helps the females stay in better condition for a spring pregnancy. Meanwhile, males are skinnier at the beginning of the winter but by staying alone they’re less likely to contract disease or parasites.

Mating season for skunks is in spring and babies are born in early summer. They mostly stay in the burrow for about two months, then start accompanying their mother when she goes out foraging. The mother is really protective of her babies and will spray any animal that approaches.

Although the skunk can hear and smell well, it has poor vision. That’s why so many are killed by cars. The skunk’s biggest predator is the great horned owl, because owls don’t have much of a sense of smell and don’t care about being sprayed.

The skunk and the stink badger are both omnivorous and will dig up grubs and earthworms, will sometimes eat carrion, and also eat frogs, crustaceans, and other small animals, leaves and other plant parts, especially berries and nuts, and insects. The skunk especially likes bees. It has thick fur that helps protect it from stings, and will eat all the bees it can catch.

The skunk also eats other stinging insects, including the dreaded yellow jacket. That’s a type of wasp that’s common where I live, with incredibly painful stings. A few years ago I noticed a yellow jacket nest in the ground behind my garage, and that night when the yellow jackets were asleep I carefully trimmed the long grass around the nest opening to see how extensive it was. Then I made a mental note to get some yellow jacket poison the following day. When I went back out to deal with the nest the next night, it was gone. A skunk had discovered it, probably because I’d exposed it by trimming back the grass, and had dug the whole nest up to eat the yellow jackets. There wasn’t a single one left. Ever since I have been lowkey fond of skunks, although I do wish they wouldn’t spray so close to my house.

So what is skunk spray and why is it so stinky? The skunk has two anal glands that contain an oily liquid made up of sulfurous chemical compounds. If a skunk feels threatened, it will raise its tail and fluff it out as a warning. It may also hiss, stomp its feet, and pretend to charge its potential attacker. The skunk doesn’t actually want to spray if it can avoid it, though. Its anal glands only hold enough of the oil to spray a few times, and when the skunk runs out it can’t spray again for almost two weeks. But if its warnings don’t work, it will use muscles to contract the glands and spray the oily liquid more than ten feet, or 3 meters.

If you’ve only ever smelled skunk spray in the distance, you may not think it’s so bad. But the smell is horrific up close, strong enough to induce vomiting, and it can cause irritation to the skin or even temporary blindness if it gets in the eyes. And the skunk is really accurate when spraying, aiming at the face. Not only that, because it’s an oil, the spray clings to skin, hair, or fur, and it won’t just wash off. It can literally take weeks to wear off normally. If your clothes get sprayed, or your dog’s collar, the smell will never come out and you will have to throw the clothes away.

Domestic dogs get sprayed by skunks a lot. Some dogs just never learn. I once had a cat who was sprayed by a skunk too. You may have heard that you can remove the smell by washing your pet in tomato juice, but this actually doesn’t work. I asked a veterinarian how to clean up my cat, and this is what she told me. This worked great, by the way.

Mix hydrogen peroxide about half and half with warm water and add about a spoonful of dishwashing liquid. Rub the mixture into the fur thoroughly, making sure to work it in well right down to the skin. If you can tell where the spray is, concentrate on that part. Do your best not to get the mixture into your pet’s eyes, and make sure to use good warm water. Part of the reason animals hate getting bathed is because they get cold really easily once their fur is wet, so using really warm water helps. Then rinse your pet thoroughly, making sure to get all the soap out so they won’t get itchy. You may need to mix up another batch of the hydrogen peroxide, water, and soap and give the stinkiest areas another wash. After you’ve rinsed your pet thoroughly, wrap them up in a towel and gently squeeze as much of the water out of the fur as you can. Then make sure you have a dry towel to put in your pet’s bed or basket or wherever it wants to hide after its horrible bath.

In July of 2019 a research team published a report about a type of fungus that makes a chemical called pericosine A that neutralizes noxious chemicals. The researchers tested pericosine on skunk spray and discovered that it neutralized the smell harmlessly. So it’s probably just a matter of time before pericosine is marketed to veterinarians to help pet owners. Let’s hope so.

Even skunks don’t like to be sprayed, incidentally. Males fight each other during mating season and will sometimes spray each other. A skunk reacts like any other animal when it gets sprayed.

The zorilla is another stinky animal related to the skunk, although it lives in parts of Africa. It’s brown with white markings and is sometimes called the striped polecat or African skunk. It’s about the same size as a skunk or stink badger and looks and acts very similar, although it’s a carnivore and much more social than the skunk. It’s also related to the honey badger, which we talked about in episode 62. If you remember, the honey badger is also black with a broad white or silvery stripe down its back, and it can invert its anal sacs and discharge a stinky oil, although it doesn’t spray like a skunk.

It’s not really surprising that all these animals are related, since most members of the weasel family, known as mustelids, have anal scent glands that produce a strong odor. Most species just use the glands to mark their territory, though.

But are there animals who spray like skunks but aren’t related to the skunk? Many animals have anal glands for marking territory, and if threatened some animals will empty the anal glands as a form as defense. The king ratsnake will sometimes do this, as will the lesser anteater, the opossum, and others.

But there’s another animal that actually sprays a smelly substance for defense, and it’s not one you’d expect. It’s a bird called the hoopoe, along with its relative the woodhoopoe.

The woodhoopoe lives in woods, savannah, and rainforests of Africa. It looks something like a cuckoo, with a very long tail marked with white spots. It’s mostly a metallic black in color, although some species have markings in other colors. Males have longer, more curved bills than females because they eat larger insects that live in bark and rotten wood while females eat smaller insects that live mostly on leaves. In this way, mated pairs don’t compete with each other for food.

The hoopoe lives across Eurasia and parts of Africa, and while it’s related to the woodhoopoe, it looks very different. It has a long crest that it can raise and lower like a crown, and it’s a pretty tan or brown color with black and white markings. Both males and females have long, slightly curved bills that they use to catch insects and other small animals.

Female hoopoes and woodhoopoes are picky about nesting spots. The female likes to nest in dead trees in rotting wood, or sometimes in a gap in a rock wall. The female incubates her eggs alone. But animals find dead trees and crumbling walls easy to climb, so to protect her nest the female can spray a foul-smelling liquid from the gland that most birds just use to secrete preening oil. This is the case for the female hoopoe and woodhoopoe too most of the time, but after she lays her eggs the gland becomes weaponized. Not only that, when the babies hatch, they develop the same gland. The female rubs the stinky oil on her babies and on the nest to deter predators, and researchers think it may also deter parasites. If an animal approaches the nest anyway, the female can spray the oil at it. And if the female is off catching food for her babies, the babies will hiss, peck, and squirt liquid poop at the predator. At that point, most predators probably just decide to go hunt something else. After they clean up.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 135: Smallest of the Large



This week we’re looking at some very small animals–but not animals that we think of as small. Join us for a horrendously cute episode!

Further reading:

The Echinoblog

Further listening:

Animals to the Max episode #75: The Sea Panda (vaquita)

Varmints! episode #49: Hippos

Further watching:

An adorable baby pygmy hippo

The Barbados threadsnake will protecc your fingertip:

Parvulastra will decorate your thumbnail:

Berthe’s mouse lemur will defend this twig:

The bumblebee bat will eat any bugs that come near your finger:

The vaquita, tiny critically endangered porpoise:

The long-tailed planigale is going to steal this ring and wear it as a belt:

He höwl:

A pygmy hippo and its mother will sample this grass:

This Virgin Islands dwarf gecko will spend this dime if it can just pick it up:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I talk a lot about biggest animals on this podcast, so maybe it’s time to look at the very smallest animals. I don’t mean algae or bacteria or things like that, I mean the smallest species of animals that aren’t usually considered especially small.

We’ll start with the smolest snek, the Barbados threadsnake. It only lives on a few islands in the Caribbean, notably Barbados. The very largest individual ever measured was only 4.09 inches long, or 10.4 cm, but most are under four inches long. But it’s an extremely thin snake, not much thicker than a spaghetti noodle.

The Barbados threadsnake mostly eats termites and ant larvae. It spends most of its time in leaf litter or under rocks, hunting for food. The female only lays one single egg, but the baby is relatively large, about half the mother’s length when it hatches.

That’s so cute. Why are small things so cute?

Remember the starfish episode where we talked about the largest starfish? Well, what’s the smallest starfish? That would be Parvulastra parvivipara, which is smaller than a fingernail decoration sticker. It grows to about ten millimeters across and is orangey-yellow in color. It lives on the coast of Tasmania in rock pools between low and high tide, called intertidal rock pools.

If you remember the Mangrove killifish from a few episodes ago, you’ll remember how killifish females are hermaphrodites that produce both eggs and sperm, and usually self-fertilize their eggs to produce tiny clones of themselves. Well, Parvulastra does that too, although like the killifish it probably doesn’t always self-fertilize its eggs. But then it does something interesting for a starfish. Instead of releasing its eggs into the water to develop by themselves, Parvulastra keeps the eggs inside its body. And instead of the eggs hatching into larvae, they hatch into impossibly tiny miniature baby starfish, which the parent keeps inside its body until the baby is big enough to survive safely on its own.

But what do the baby starfish eat while they’re still inside the mother? Well, they eat their SIBLINGS. The larger babies eat the smaller ones, and eventually leave through one of the openings in the parent’s body wall, called gonopores. Researchers theorize that one of the reasons the babies leave the parent is to escape being eaten by its siblings. And yes, occasionally a baby grows so big that it won’t fit through the gonopores. So it just goes on living inside the parent.

Next, let’s look at the smallest primate. The primate order includes humans, apes, monkeys, and a lot of other animals, including lemurs. And the very smallest one is Berthe’s mouse lemur. Its body is only 3.6 inches long on average, or 9.2 cm, with a tail that more than doubles its length. Its fur is yellowish and brownish-red.

Berthe’s mouse lemur was only discovered in 1992. It lives in one tiny area of western Madagascar, where it lives in trees, which means it’s vulnerable to the deforestation going on all over Madagascar and is considered endangered.

It mostly eats insects, but also fruit, flowers, and small animals of various kinds. Its habitat overlaps with another small primate, the gray mouse lemur, but they avoid each other. Madagascar has 24 known mouse lemur species and they all seem to get along well by avoiding each other and eating slightly different diets. Researchers discover new species all the time, including three in 2016.

Last October we had an episode about bats, specifically macrobats that have wingspans as broad as eagles’. But the smallest bat is called the bumblebee bat. It’s also called Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, but bumblebee bat is way cuter. It’s a microbat that lives in western Thailand and southeast Myanmar, and like other microbats it uses echolocation to find and catch flying insects. Its body is only about an inch long, or maybe 30 millimeters, although it has a respectable wingspan of about 6 ½ inches, or 17 cm. It’s reddish-brown in color with a little pig-like snoot, and it only weighs two grams. That’s just a tad more than a single Pringle chip weighs.

Because the bumblebee bat is so rare and lives in such remote areas, we don’t know a whole lot about it. It was only discovered in 1974 and is increasingly endangered due to habitat loss, since it’s only been found in 35 caves in Thailand and 8 in Myanmar, and those are often disturbed by people entering them. The land around the caves is burned every year to clear brush for farming, which affects the bats too.

The bumblebee bat roosts in caves during the day and most of the night, only flying out at dawn and dusk to catch insects. It rarely flies more than about a kilometer from its cave, or a little over half a mile, but it does migrate from one cave to another seasonally. Females give birth to one tiny baby a year. Oh my gosh, tiny baby bats.

So what about whales and dolphins? You know, some of the biggest animals in Earth’s history? Well, the vaquita is a species of porpoise that lives in the Gulf of California, and it only grows about four and a half feet long, or 1.4 meters. Like other porpoises, it uses echolocation to navigate and catch its prey. It eats small fish, squid, crustaceans, and other small animals.

The vaquita is usually solitary and spends very little time at the surface of the water, so it’s hard to spot and not a lot is known about it. It mostly lives in shallow water and it especially likes lagoons with murky water, properly called turbid water, since it attracts more small animals.

Unfortunately, the vaquita is critically endangered, mostly because it often gets trapped in illegal gillnets and drowns. The gillnets are set to catch a different critically endangered animal, a fish called the totoaba. The totoaba is larger than the vaquita and is caught for its swim bladder, which is considered a delicacy in China and is exported on the black market. The vaquita’s total population may be no more than ten animals at this point, fifteen at the most, and the illegal gillnets are still drowning them, so it may be extinct within a few years. A captive breeding plan was tried in 2017, but porpoises don’t do well in captivity and the individuals the group caught all died. Hope isn’t lost, though, because vaquita females are still having healthy babies, and there are conservation groups patrolling the part of the Gulf of California where they live to remove gill nets and chase off fishing boats trying to set more of the nets.

If you want to learn a little more about the vaquita and how to help it, episode 75 of Corbin Maxey’s excellent podcast Animals to the Max is an interview with a vaquita expert. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Next, let’s talk about an animal that is not in danger of extinction. Please! The long-tailed planigale is doing just fine, a common marsupial from Australia. So, if it’s a marsupial, it must be pretty big—like kangaroos and wallabies. Right? Nope, the long-tailed planigale is the size of a mouse, which it somewhat resembles. It even has a long tail that’s bare of fur. It grows to 2 ½ inches long not counting its tail, or 6.5 cm. It’s brown with longer hind legs than forelegs so it often sits up like a tiny squirrel. Its nose is pointed and it has little round mouse-like ears. But it has a weird skull.

The long-tailed planigale’s skull is flattened—in fact, it’s no more than 4 mm top to bottom. This helps it squeeze into cracks in the dry ground, where it hunts insects and other small animals, and hides from predators.

The pygmy hippopotamus is a real animal, which I did not know until recently. It grows about half the height of the common hippo and only weighs about a quarter as much. It’s just over three feet tall at the shoulder, or 100 cm. It’s black or brown in color and spends most of its time in shallow water, usually rivers. It’s sometimes seen resting in burrows along river banks, but no one’s sure if it digs these burrows or makes use of burrows dug by other animals. It comes out of the water at night to find food. Its nostrils and eyes are smaller than the common hippo’s.

Unlike the common hippo, the pygmy hippo lives in deep forests and as a result, mostly eats ferns, fruit, and various leaves. Common hippos eat more grass and water plants. The pygmy hippo seems to be less aggressive than the common hippo, but it also shares some behaviors with its larger cousins. For instance, the pooping thing. If you haven’t listened to the Varmints! Episode about hippos, you owe it to yourself to do so because it’s hilarious. I’ll put a link in the show notes to that one too. While the hippo poops, it wags its little tail really fast to spread the poop out across a larger distance.

Also like the common hippo, the pygmy hippo secretes a reddish substance that looks like blood. It’s actually called hipposudoric acid, which researchers thinks acts as a sunscreen and an antiseptic. Hippos have delicate skin with almost no hair, so its skin dries out and cracks when it’s out of water too long.

The pygmy hippo is endangered in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching, but fortunately it breeds successfully in zoos and lives a long time, up to about 55 years in captivity. For some reason females are much more likely to be born in captivity, so when a male baby is born it’s a big deal for the captive breeding program. I’ll put a link in the show notes to a video where you can watch a baby pygmy hippo named Sapo and his mother. He’s adorable.

Finally, let’s finish where we started, with another reptile. The smallest lizard is a gecko, although there are a lot of small geckos out there and it’s a toss-up which one is actually smallest on average. Let’s go with the Virgin Islands dwarf gecko, which lives on three of the British Virgin Islands. It’s closely related to the other contender for smallest reptile, the dwarf sphaero from Puerto Rico, which is a nearby island, but while that gecko is just a shade shorter on average, it’s much heavier.

The Virgin Islands dwarf gecko is only 18 mm long not counting its tail, and it weighs .15 grams. A paperclip weighs more than this gecko. It’s brown with darker speckles and a yellow stripe behind the eyes. Females are usually slightly larger than males. Like other geckos, it can lose its tail once and regrow a little stump of a tail.

The Virgin Islands dwarf gecko lives in dry forests and especially likes rocky hills, where it spends a lot of its time hunting for tiny animals under rocks. We don’t know a whole lot about it, but it does seem to be rare and only lives in a few places, so it’s considered endangered. In 2011 some rich guy decided he was going to release a bunch of lemurs from Madagascar onto Moskito Island, one of the islands where the dwarf gecko lives. Every conservationist ever told him oh NO you don’t, rich man, what is your problem? Those lemurs will destroy the island’s delicate ecosystem, drive the dwarf gecko and many other species to extinction, and then die because the habitat is all wrong for lemurs. So Mr. Rich Man said fine, whatever, I’ll take my lemurs and go home. And he did, and the dwarf gecko was saved.

Look, if you have so much money that you’re making plans to move lemurs halfway across the world because you think it’s a good idea, I can help take some of that money off your hands.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 134: The Magpie



Thanks to Emma for this week’s suggestion about the magpie! We’ll learn all about the magpie and also about the mirror test for intelligence and self-awareness.

The black-billed magpie of North America (left) is almost identical in appearance to the Eurasian magpie (right):

Not all magpies are black and white. This green magpie is embarrassed by its goth cousins:

The beautiful and altruistic azure-winged magpie:

Chimps pass the mirror test. So do magpies:

The Australian magpie, or as Emma calls it, MURDERBIRD:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week let’s learn about the magpie, a frighteningly intelligent bird. Thanks to Emma for the suggestion!

The magpie is a member of the corvid family, so it’s related to crows, ravens, jackdaws, jays, rooks, and a few other kinds of birds. Most magpies are native to Europe and Asia, but there are a couple of species found in western North America. There are also two species found in Australia, but we’ll come back to those later on. People think of magpies as black and white, but some Asian species are green or blue. They look like parrots at first glance.

The most well-known magpie is the Eurasian or common magpie. Its body and shoulders are bright white and its head, tail, wings, beak, and legs are a glossy black. It has a very long tail for its size, a little longer than its body, and its wingspan is about two feet across, or 62 cm. It looks so much like the black-billed magpie of western North America that for a long time people thought the two birds were the same species.

Like most corvid species, the magpie is omnivorous. It will eat plant material like acorns and seeds, insects and other invertebrates, the eggs and babies of other birds, and roadkill and other carrion. It will also hunt small animals in groups. It mates for life and is intensely social.

The big thing about the magpie is how intelligent it is. It’s a social bird with a complex society, tool use, excellent memory, and evidence of emotions usually only attributed to mammals, like grief. An experiment with a group of Azure-winged magpies, a species that lives in Asia, shows something called prosocial behavior, which is incredibly rare except in humans and some other primates. Prosocial behavior is also called altruism. In the experiment, a magpie could operate a seesaw to deliver food to other members of its flock, but it wouldn’t get any food itself. All the magpies tested in this way made sure their bird buddies got the food. When access to the food was blocked for the other birds, the bird operating the seesaw didn’t operate it.

The magpie also passes what’s called the mirror test. The mirror test is when a researcher temporary places a colored dot on an animal’s body in a place where it can’t see it, usually the face. Then a mirror is introduced into the animal’s enclosure. If an animal sees the dot in the reflection and investigates its own body to try to examine or remove the dot, the researcher concludes that the animal understands that the reflection is itself, not another animal.

This sounds simple because most humans pass the mirror test when we’re still just toddlers. But most animals don’t. Obviously researchers haven’t been able to try the test with every single animal in the world, but even so, the results they’ve found have been surprising. Great apes pass the test, bottlenose dolphins and orcas have passed, and the European magpie has passed the test. Cleaner wrasse fish also passed the test.

You know what else passed the mirror test? Ants.

The mirror test is supposed to be a test of self-awareness, but that’s not necessarily what it’s showing. Dogs fail the mirror test but pass other tests that more clearly indicate self-awareness. But in dogs, the sense of smell is much more important than sight. Humans don’t even usually think of smell since we’re more attuned to sight and hearing, so we’ve constructed a flawed test without realizing it.

Gorillas also don’t always pass the mirror test, but researchers think this may be because in gorilla society, it’s an act of aggression to look into another gorilla’s eyes. So the gorilla looking in the mirror may literally not see the dot that was painted on its forehead while it was asleep, since it automatically avoids looking at another gorilla’s face, even its own reflection. As far as I can find, no one has tried painting the dot on bottom of the gorilla’s foot or something instead of its face.

Parrots, monkeys, lesser apes, and octopuses don’t pass the test, but all these animals express intelligence in many other ways. Not only that, but some animals that don’t technically pass the test because they don’t give any attention to the dot painted on them will use the mirror for other purposes, like looking at parts of the body they can’t ordinarily see. Asian elephants do poorly on the mirror test, but do well in other tests that measure self-awareness.

Also, most of the animals given the mirror test have never looked in a mirror before. Maybe they don’t realize that dot wasn’t always on their cheek. Or maybe they just don’t care if they’ve got a dot on their face.

That brings us to a final criticism of the mirror test. Some animals live in environments where they’re likely to see reflections. An animal that frequently sees its own reflection in still water when it drinks is more likely to understand that this is a reflection of itself. An animal that has never seen its own reflection won’t necessarily understand what it is. Even humans have this trouble. People who have been blind since birth but who regain vision later in life often don’t know what a reflection is at first. This doesn’t mean they’re stupid or not self-aware, it’s just something new that they have to learn.

But it’s still interesting that magpies pass the mirror test. Okay, let’s move on.

There are a lot of folklore traditions and superstitions about magpies. In Britain, seeing a single magpie is sometimes said to be bad luck, a sign of bad weather to come, or even an omen of death. Seeing two magpies is good luck or a good omen. In parts of Asia all magpies are considered lucky. The nursery rhyme “one for sorrow, two for joy” is originally about magpies, although as a kid I learned it about crows since I live in a part of the world where we don’t have magpies. The rhyme varies, but the version I learned is “one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, and seven’s a secret that’s never been told.”

Magpies are supposed to be attracted to shiny objects and are thought of as thieves. There’s a whole opera about this, Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, about a girl who’s accused of stealing a silver spoon. The girl is convicted and condemned to death, but just in time the spoon is discovered in a magpie’s nest and the girl is pardoned. You’ve probably heard the overture to this opera without knowing it, since it appears in a lot of movies.

But do magpies really steal shiny things like jewelry, coins, and silver spoons? Results of a study of wild common magpies indicate that they don’t. A few of the magpies investigated the shiny objects, but none took any and most birds were wary of getting too close to items they’d never seen before.

Many people think magpies are pests who chase off or kill other songbirds, steal things, and are basically taking over the world. That’s actually not the case. The magpie is an important part of its ecosystem, and areas with plenty of magpies actually have healthier populations of other songbirds. The black-billed magpie of North America will hang around herds of cattle, cleaning the animals of ticks and other insects.

Let’s return now to the Australian magpies I mentioned earlier. The black magpie is mostly black with white on its wings. It’s actually not closely related to the magpie at all but is a species of treepie. Other treepies are found in southeast Asia. Treepies are corvids, but they’re not closely related to magpies although they look similar.

The Australian magpie also looks similar to the common magpie, but it’s not a corvid, although its family is distantly related to the corvid family. It’s mostly black with white markings and a heavy silvery-white bill with a black tip. It lives in Australia, southern New Guinea, and has been introduced to New Zealand, where it’s an invasive pest that displaces native birds. It’s about the size of the common magpie, but more heavily built with a shorter tail. It mostly eats insects and other invertebrates, but it is omnivorous. Researchers have noticed that some Australian magpies dunk insects in water before eating them, a practice seen in many species of birds. It doesn’t just dip the insect in the water, though, it thrashes it around. Researchers theorize that this helps rid certain insects of toxins and therefore improves the taste.

If someone gets too close to an Australian magpie’s nest, it will divebomb them, especially the male. It may also peck at the face, sometimes causing injuries. Sometimes people will paint eyes on the back of a hat to try and fool a magpie into attacking the painted face instead of their actual face, although this generally doesn’t work. The magpie especially attacks people who are moving fast, like joggers and bicyclists, so some bike helmets have spikes on them to stop magpies from diving at them. But since a magpie will also sometimes land on the ground in front of a person, then fly up and attack their face from that angle, it doesn’t really matter what kind of hat you wear. It’s probably safest to avoid magpies who are nesting. The babies will be grown and flown away soon enough and then you can have your public park back.

Australian magpies also chase off predatory birds, mobbing them the same way crows and other birds mob hawks.

The Australian magpie is also an intelligent bird. Researchers think intelligence in birds and animals of all kinds is linked to sociability, and Australian magpies are just as social as their far-distant Eurasian and North American cousins. Magpies who grow up in larger groups score higher on tests of intelligence than magpies from smaller groups. The larger a group, the more complex the social interactions required of an individual bird, which drives cognitive development.

The Australian magpie has an amazing singing voice and can mimic other birds and animals. It even sometimes imitates human speech. A magpie may sing constantly for over an hour at a time, and pairs often call together. These duets actually indicate to other birds that the pair is working together to defend their territory, so maybe if you hear it it’s time to put on the bike helmet with spikes.

This is what an Australian magpie sounds like:

[magpie call]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 128: Weird Pigs



If you think pigs are just cute little pink animals that go oink, you definitely need to listen to this week’s episode!

Further listening (two unlocked Patreon episodes):

Weird teeth featuring the babirusa

Peccaries

Further reading:

More about the swamp pig of Hungary

An adorable pygmy hog:

A Javan warty pig, looking magnificent:

An actual warthog, not a cartoon warthog, just sayin:

A giant forest hog, looking kind of similar to the warthog but bigger:

A wild boar looking surprisingly fluffy:

A wild boar piglet, awwww:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to look at an animal all of us know as the thing that goes oink-oink. Some people eat them, some people will absolutely not eat them, some people keep them as pets, but everybody knows what a pig is. But you might not know about these weird and sometimes mysterious pigs!

I’ve unlocked two Patreon bonus episodes about pigs so that anyone can listen to them. I recently posted a bonus episode about peccaries, and there’s an older bonus episode about some animals with weird teeth that features the babirusa. Check the show notes for links to those episodes. You don’t need a Patreon login, just click on the link and use your browser to listen.

There are two groups of piglike animals, known as the New World pigs found throughout the Americas, and the Old World pigs from Africa and Eurasia. Domestic pigs are Old World pigs, although escaped domestic pigs live as feral animals in many parts of the world. New World and Old World pigs are related, but not closely. They used to be classified together in the pig family, Suidae, but the New World pigs now have their own family, Tayassuidae.

All these pigs have one thing in common: a snout that ends in a disc with nostrils at the end. You know, a pig snout. The disc is made of cartilage and is usually extremely tough, with leathery skin, but it’s also full of nerve endings so the pig can tell exactly what it’s touching with its snout. Pigs use their snouts to root in the ground, digging up plant material and small animals like grubs and worms. You know why pigs sometimes have a ring in their nose, through the nostrils? This stops a pig from rooting, because the ring gets caught on rocks and things and pulls at the sensitive nostrils.

Male pigs of all kinds also have tusks, or teeth that grow long enough that they extend out of the mouth. Plus pigs have small, thin tails, bulky bodies with relatively slender legs, cloven hooves with two dew claws on each foot, and small eyes. The babies of wild pig species are usually furry with stripes the length of their body.

Pigs are surprisingly intelligent and can learn all kinds of tricks, just like dogs. And while a domestic pig that’s been handled often since it was a piglet will make a good pet, wild pigs and pigs that aren’t used to people can be dangerous. Pigs will eat people, which seems only fair since people eat so many pigs. Pigs will eat anything, in fact. They’re omnivores, just like humans are. Pigs also carry a lot of parasites and diseases that humans can catch too.

Let’s look at some of the more unusual wild pigs out there, starting with the pygmy hog. The pygmy hog isn’t actually very closely related to most pigs. It’s much smaller than most pig species, only about a foot high, or 30 cm. It’s brown in color with short hair and rounded ears, and it lives in India although it used to be much more widespread.

The pygmy hog lives in small family groups, usually females and their young. Males are more solitary. In cold weather the pygmy hog digs a nest to sleep in, rooting out a small trough in the dirt with its snout and lining it with grass. This is adorable.

The pygmy hog was first described in 1847 but by the 1960s it was supposedly extinct. But a population was rediscovered in 1971 living in a wildlife sanctuary. By the time a conservation program was set up in 1995, only a few hundred pygmy hogs were still alive in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting. The pygmy hog likes wet grasslands, which are often overgrazed by livestock. Fortunately it’s now a protected species in India, and over a hundred captive-bred pygmy hogs have been reintroduced into the wild and are repopulating areas where they were once common.

Another endangered pig is the Javan warty pig, which lives on several islands in Indonesia. It’s black with some reddish areas on its head and belly. Males can grow up to three feet tall, or about a meter, although females are smaller. It’s mostly active at night, with females and young living in small groups, while adult males are mostly solitary. When something scares it, it gives a shrill whistle to warn other pigs.

The male Javan warty pig has three pairs of so-called warts on its head, one pair under the eyes, one pair under the ears, and one pair on the jaw. These aren’t warts at all, of course, but thickened skin that protect the eyes, the ears, and the neck from the tusks of other male pigs, since males fight with their tusks during mating season.

The most famous wart-bearing pig, of course, is the warthog. The warthog lives in Africa and is well-adapted to the savanna and hot weather. It has very little hair except for a mane down the spine, and very little fat, which helps keep it cool, and it often sleeps in abandoned aardvark burrows or digs its own burrow for shade. It usually backs into its burrow so if anything tries to come in after it, it will meet its tusks.

Warthogs have two pairs of massive tusks that rub against each other, sharpening them. The upper tusks can grow up to two feet long, or 61 cm, with the lower tusks up to 6 inches long, or 15 cm. Males fight each other with the tusks, but both males and females have them since they make good weapons against predators like lions. But the warthog can run so fast that it doesn’t usually need to defend itself. It can run up to 34 mph, or 55 km/hour.

The warthog mostly eats grass and other plants, including roots that it digs up with its snout. It can go without water for months at a time, getting the moisture it requires from the plants it eats. But when water is available, it likes to sit in the water to cool down. It will also wallow in mud just like domestic pigs do. It often kneels while it eats but no one’s sure why. I guess it just finds that comfortable.

One of the biggest species of wild pig alive today is the giant forest hog, which lives in forests in a few parts of Africa. There are three subspecies, but only the one that lives in East Africa is really big. It can grow more than 3 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.1 meters, and a big male can weigh over 600 lbs, or 275 kg. It looks sort of like a hairier, bigger warthog with a broader head.

The giant forest hog is black, gray, and dark brown. It likes forests and mostly eats plants, especially grass, although like other pigs it will eat anything it can find when its favorite foods aren’t available. This includes insects, carrion, and elephant dung. It lives in small family groups, usually one male, a few females, and their piglets. Younger males without a mate will hang out together in bachelor herds, but adult males will fight if they encounter each other, mostly by ramming their heads together or pushing snout to snout in a test of strength.

The other biggest species of wild pig is the wild boar, native to Eurasia and north Africa, and the ancestor of the domestic pig. It’s been introduced to other parts of the world as a game animal, including Australia and the United States. There are 16 subspecies of wild boar, including the Ussuri wild boar, which grows the largest. It lives in parts of China and Russia. A big male Ussuri can weigh 660 pounds, or 300 kg.

According to Hungarian folklore, there used to be a type of large wild pig called the fisher pig or swamp pig that lived in marshy areas near certain rivers. Hungary is a country in central Europe, roughly between Austria and Romania. The swamp pig is supposed to be extinct now, dying out around the end of the 19th century, but it was once well known in parts of Hungary. It mostly ate crabs and fish and lived in herds. That’s pretty much all I could find out about it. It may have been a population of feral pigs or it might have been a subspecies of wild boar that’s gone extinct now.

So what’s the biggest domestic pig ever measured? Pigs are usually assessed by weight, naturally, and a pig named Big Bill holds the world record. He weighed 2,552 pounds, or 1,157 kg, in 1933. This is really unusual, though. Most pigs that weigh anywhere near that much end up dying of heart failure or other health issues brought on by their unusual size after being overfed by their owners.

Wild boars can and do crossbreed with domestic pigs. The offspring usually resembles the wild parent more than the domestic parent, often with a mane of bristly hair that gives it the name razorback. It can be hard to tell whether a particular animal is a wild boar or a hybrid or just a feral domestic pig.

Sometimes unusually large pigs are shot and killed. You may have heard of Hogzilla, Hog Kong, and the Monster Pig, among others. Where wild boars have been introduced as game animals, they’re incredibly destructive to the environment and can be dangerous. It’s common for people to hunt them and sometimes they kill humongous pigs. Or at least they claim they did.

In 2004 a man shot a pig on a hunting reserve in Georgia, in the United States, that he claimed weighed over a thousand pounds, or 450 kg. It actually turned out to be much smaller, only about 800 pounds, or 360 kg. That’s still a big pig, so I don’t know why the hunter had to lie about its size.

Similarly, in 2007, some hunters in Alabama in the United States reported that an 11yo boy with them, the son of one of the hunters, had shot and killed a pig that weighed over a thousand pounds, or more than 475 kg. They sent photos of the boy and the dead pig to local media, but pretty soon the story fell apart. It turned out that the photos used forced perspective to make the pig look bigger than it really was, and that the pig wasn’t even wild. It was a domestic pig named Fred who was quite friendly and had been raised as a pet. Fred’s owners had sold him to a hunting preserve and recognized their former pet in the pictures. The 11yo boy had “hunted” Fred in a relatively small enclosure. Whatever your views on hunting, this wasn’t a fair hunt and it turned out that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to drum up business at the preserve.

I don’t know, maybe don’t sell your pet pig to a canned hunt business in the first place.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. You can email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 126: The Hedgehog and the Moonrat



This week thanks to Romy, who suggested the topic of hedgehogs! And researching hedgehogs led me to their only close relation, the moonrat.

Hedgehogs are adorable:

Pictures of listener QuillviaPlath’s adorable friend Delilah, an African pygmy hedgehog. Delilah has crossed the Rainbow Bridge since these pictures were taken, but QuillviaPlath has a rescue hedgehog named Lily now and will soon be adopting another rescue named Toodles too!

Moonrats are a little less adorable but still cute:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about a humble little animal that’s well-known in much of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but totally unknown in the Americas except as a pet. It’s the hedgehog, a suggestion from Romy. Thank you, Romy! We’ll also learn about the hedgehog’s closest relation, the moonrat.

There did actually used to be a hedgehog native to North America, but it went extinct some 50 million years ago. The hedgehogs alive today pretty much haven’t changed in about 15 million years. The North American hedgehog is called Silvacola and only grew a few inches long, or maybe 7 cm. It lived in what is now British Columbia, Canada. We don’t know if it had quills, but the hedgehogs living in Europe at the same time as Silvacola lived had already evolved quills, so maybe it did.

I have seen exactly one hedgehog in my life, a pet named Button. I got to pet her and everything. She was very sleepy, though, because it was daytime and hedgehogs are nocturnal. But I can verify that hedgehogs do have spines on the back and sides, although if you pet the hedgehog properly you won’t get your fingers poked by the spines. I can also verify that hedgehogs are adorable.

But other than adorable and prickly, what are hedgehogs? Are they related to porcupines? Are they related to hogs? Do they really live in hedges?

The answers are no, no, and yes. Thanks for listening. You can find Strange Animals—ha ha, just kidding!

There are a number of hedgehog species in five separate genera. A few species have been domesticated, although it’s illegal in many places to keep a wild hedgehog as a pet. In some places it’s illegal to keep a hedgehog as a pet at all, since hedgehogs can become invasive pests if released into the wild in areas where they shouldn’t be. This has happened in New Zealand and a few other places, where introduced hedgehogs have no natural predators and have become so numerous they’ve caused damage to the local ecosystems. The hedgehog is an omnivore, and will eat bird eggs, insects, frogs and toads, snails, plants, and pretty much anything else. It’s especially damaging to shore birds that nest on the ground. But in its natural habitat, the hedgehog plays an important role as both a predator of small animals, including garden pests, and as prey to larger animals like foxes, badgers, and owls.

The hedgehog will also eat small snakes, and actually has some natural immunity to certain snake venoms. Of course, if a snake injects enough venom it will overwhelm the hedgehog’s protections and make it sick or kill it anyway. It also has resistance to toxins and will eat toxic toads that would kill other animals. But the hedgehog’s best protection is its spines, more properly called quills. If a hedgehog feels threatened, it will roll itself into a tight ball with its quills sticking out.

The quills are hairs that are hollow and stiffened with keratin. Good old keratin. You know, keratin is the same tough material that fur and fingernails and rhinoceros horns and hooves and baleen are made of. European hedgehogs are famous for the number of fleas they carry, a specific species of flea called the hedgehog flea. Who named that? They were a genius. Hedgehog fleas won’t infest dogs or cats. They only like hedgehogs.

The hedgehog is a good digger and sometimes digs burrows to sleep in during the day. It’s adaptable to many habitats but likes woodlands, meadows, and, yes, hedgerows where it can find lots of food. It has a pig-like snout, short legs, a little stub of a tail, and small ears. Baby hedgehogs are born with a protective membrane over their quills. It grows to around a foot long, or 30 cm, although many of the species are typically smaller than that. Most hedgehogs are brown but some are naturally cream-colored, a rare variety called blonde. This color is bred for in domesticated hedgehogs. Button the hedgehog is blonde with a dark spot on her back, which is why she’s named Button.

The population of West European hedgehogs has decreased substantially in the last few decades, which has conservationists worried. A 2016 study reported that the population has declined over 7% in the UK over the last 50 years, with similar declines in parts of Europe like Sweden and Belgium. Researchers speculate this may be due to habitat loss.

The hedgehog can hibernate although it doesn’t always. It may hibernate in piles of leaves or sticks, or in a burrow it digs underground, or somewhere else that’s protected from predators and cold. If you’ve gathered wood for a bonfire, make sure to check the pile for sleeping hedgehogs before you get the matches out.

One of the most persistent legends about the hedgehog is that it rolls on fruit, especially apples, in order to stick its quills into the fruit. Then it goes home to its burrow, carrying the fruit on its quills to eat later.

So, do hedgehogs actually do this? Probably not. Some observers say hedgehogs will roll in leaves and allow the leaves to stick to its quills, possibly as a form of camouflage. It would be easy for one to accidentally pick up a small rotten apple this way, giving rise to the legend, although the quills aren’t strong enough to hold a large apple without breaking. The sites I read online all say that hedgehogs don’t bring food back to the burrow to eat later, but T.H. White shares an anecdote to the contrary in his Book of Beasts. This is a translation of a 12th century bestiary, and his anecdote appears in a note on page 95. The text repeats the story of hedgehogs carrying apples home, and White adds:

“The Hedgehog constructs a humble nest in ditches, and there it hibernates. In 1939, the present translator dug out such a nest, near an orchard, with an Irish laboring companion who proceeded to tell him that hedgehogs carried apples to their nests on their spines—an anecdote which the translator had just been reading in this manuscript, eight hundred years older than the Irishman. The latter asserted the truth of his statement with passion, pointing to the apples, which were indeed there, and had punctured bruises on them. But the creature had probably trundled them there with its nose, subsequently making the punctures when it curled up to sleep on top of them.”

I haven’t found anyone else who reports seeing a hedgehog push an apple home with its nose, or anything else for that matter. But the apples were in the hedgehog’s nest. T.H. White saw them. It could be the apples had fallen from a nearby tree and rolled into the ditch on their own, and the hedgehog just happened to nest on them. Then again, one source I found mentions that hedgehogs may anoint themselves with apple juice to help repel fleas and other parasites. This seems a little on the farfetched side, but the hedgehog does do a weird thing called anointing that might have something to do with controlling parasites. No one’s sure what it’s for.

Anointing seems to be triggered when a hedgehog encounters a new or unusual odor. The hedgehog starts foaming at the mouth, often contorting its body oddly, and then it licks the foam onto its quills. This happens with domesticated hedgehogs as well as wild ones, and one site I read mentions that it may happen if you handle a pet hedgehog after putting hand lotion on.

So what is the hedgehog related to? It’s not a rodent, so it’s not related to porcupines. It’s a placental mammal so it’s not related to echidnas, which are monotremes. Both porcupines and echidnas evolved quills for protection independently. The hedgehog is probably most closely related to the shrew, but the other member of its family is an animal called the moonrat.

The moonrat lives in Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand, Borneo, and Myanmar, and shares a lot of characteristics with the hedgehog, like being omnivorous and digging burrows, but it doesn’t have quills. It looks a lot like the Virginia opossum, or as it’s properly called around where I live, the possum. But the possum is a marsupial, and again, the moonrat, like the hedgehog, is a placental mammal. It also looks a little like a rat, but the rat is a rodent and the moonrat isn’t a rodent.

The moonrat has a relatively long, skinny tail that’s mostly bare of fur and is actually scaly, which makes its tail look kind of like a snake. It also hisses like a snake (it’s not a snake). (Also going to point out that the possum hisses too.) The moonrat also has a long, thin muzzle, small rounded ears, and short legs. It grows to about a foot and a half long, not counting the tail, which can be nearly as long as the body. A foot and a half is about 40 cm. One subspecies of moonrat has light gray or white fur on its head and forequarters except for a black mask, while the rest of its body is black. Another subspecies is mostly white.

The moonrat prefers jungles and forests and is mostly nocturnal. It eats pretty much anything, but it especially likes insects, crabs, worms, and frogs, and will even eat fish when it can catch one.

One interesting thing about the moonrat is its smell. The moonrat marks its territory with a scent that smells like ammonia. You know what else smells like ammonia? Cat pee. That is not a good smell, if you’ve ever had to clean out a cat’s litter box that should have been cleaned out a lot earlier. It also smells kind of like rotten onions. As a result of its scent glands for marking territory, the moonrat smells pretty bad to human noses. But people do occasionally eat it, just as they sometimes eat hedgehogs.

People are omnivores too, after all. But, you know, maybe don’t eat animals that smell like ammonia.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at a new URL! I finally had to move to a real podcast hosting platform since I had topped out the memory and usage available without one. Our website is now at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. I will keep the old website up but it won’t be updated. The podcast feed shouldn’t change unless I’ve really messed something up, in which case you probably aren’t hearing this.

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, or just want a sticker, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast where you can get bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month donation.

Thanks for listening!